Nearly seven years after launching one of the most meaningful racial justice movements in modern history, Patrisse Cullors isn’t ready to slow down anytime soon. The Los Angeles-based artist, activist, and co-founder of Black Lives Matter has dedicated her life to reforming the criminal justice system and putting public pressure on those in power who look the other way when violence occurs on their watch. Cullors, who has been on the frontlines of racial and criminal justice movements since she was a teenager, says Black Lives Matter was created to amplify the stories of Black people who are directly targeted by incarceration and police violence.
“I think we succeeded in that we opened up an entirely new conversation for those of us who lived through the war on drugs and the war on gangs, and those of us who lived through over-policing and over-incarceration,” Cullors said. “It created an alternative vision for what this country should look like and be like.”
Though Cullors is best known as the co-founder of Black Lives Matter—along with Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi—she has several other notable notches on her belt. She was thrust into activism at a young age in 1999 after her brother was brutally beaten by a deputy while in jail in LA County. Cullors, who was a teenager at the time, knew she needed to take action and help her brothers’ situation—she just didn’t know how. To help cope and educate others about the violence her brother experienced, she created a traveling performance art piece titled Stained: An Intimate Portrayal of State Violence, which was performed for a year around LA County.
Then, in 2011, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a class action lawsuit against the LA County Sheriff’s Department that accused county sheriffs of torturing and beating people inside the jails. After reading the complaint, Cullors learned about the depth of the problem and how long it had persisted. She immediately contacted the ACLU to share her brothers’ story.
“That complaint just really developed the story around what happened to my brother and what’s happening to thousands of people across the country,” she said. “There’s a long history of torture and violence against people in those jails.”
Shortly after, Cullors formed the Coalition to End Sheriff Violence, which successfully put pressure on law enforcement to end the mistreatment of incarcerated people. From there, Cullors went on to start the organization Dignity and Power Now, which fights for the rights of incarcerated people and their families. In 2014, organizers moved to establish civilian oversight for the sheriff’s department, which was eventually approved by the LA County Board of Supervisors in 2016.
Though Cullors’ art and activism have propelled the discussion of police violence onto the international stage, she acknowledges there is still more work to be done. For progress to happen, she says society must first recognize that the current system is rooted in racism, white supremacy, white nationalism, homophobia, and transphobia. As a self-identified abolitionist, her ultimate goal is to abolish the police and prison state so that people of all backgrounds can remain dignified—that’s why she’s wary of using the word “crime.”
Patrisse Cullors performs at her Thesis Solo Show in Los Angeles in 2019.
“I think we have to re-understand what criminality is,” Cullors said. “We have allowed for a racist legal system to define what crimes are. When we talk about harm and violence, I don’t use the word ‘crime.’ Crime was created by a right-wing infrastructure to criminalize Black people in particular, and brown people.”
Currently, Cullors remains as the board chair of Dignity and Power Now. She began to transition out of working for the Black Lives Matter Global Network earlier this year. However, she still plans to support the cause in a less official capacity.
Her primary focus is the city and county of LA, where she hopes to continue to make an impact on the community. She helped to launch JusticeLA, a coalition of organizers that halted the construction of a $3.5 billion jail plan in LA. Cullors successfully campaigned for Measure R in LA, a ballot initiative for criminal justice reform that strengthens the oversight of the sheriff’s department. It was passed in March of this year. Cullors said she hopes to help people reimagine what could be done within the city, and to create a vision of what LA would look like without relying on jails and prisons.
In 2020, Cullors plans to continue her passion of using art to educate, inform, and inspire people. She currently owns an art studio and gallery in Inglewood, and was recently named the new faculty director of an online MFA art program at Prescott College. She says her work is two-pronged, and that her activism is a combination of deep art rooted in radical politics, combined with political organizing. “Where art and politics intersect, that’s the sweet spot for our new world,” she said.
For those considering getting into activism, Cullors has some advice for how to get started and be an effective community leader. “This is the kind of work that you must not do alone,” she said. “Find the people you agree with that you want to work with and have them help you. Figure out your goal and what you think is best for the community. This work can be really life-giving, but also draining, so you have to have something outside of this. We have to have friendships and hobbies so that we can reset and recharge.”